After nine days of racing, the Tour de Ski came down to four people who had a chance to win the overall title: Norway’s Petter Northug and Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Calle Halfvarsson of Sweden and Evgeniy Belov of Russia. The four top places were only separated by 45 seconds. Whoever climbed the Alpe Cermis the fastest out of this group would win.
Sunday’s seventh stage of the Tour de Ski featured a 9-kilometer ascent of one of the most famous mountains in cross-country skiing: Alpe Cermis in Val di Fiemme, Italy. From the start, it is a 1.8 k lap back through the stadium then to the Alpe. Leading to the base is a relatively small downhill before the climb begins. From the bottom to the top is 425 meters of elevation gain, giving skiers a total climb of 495 meters (1,624 feet). Scattered throughout the climb is a 26.5-percent grade, a 24-percent grade and finally, a 28-percent grade before the finish.
Since he was leading the Tour, Northug had the disadvantage of being the rabbit for everyone to pace off at the start. With a three-second lead over Sundby, he had to face the mental aspect of holding off the chasers and potentially getting caught. Second was Sundby followed by Halfvarsson and Belov, who started third (+27) and fourth (+35) behind Northug, respectively.
Interestingly enough, at the start, Sundby let Northug stay away. At 1.8 k, Northug still had a three-second lead over Sundby after pushing the pace on the flat section, trying to gain as much advantage as he could before the climb. Sundby was within striking distance, but opted to sit back for the perfect time to make a move. That opportunity came around 6.2 k.
Sundby quietly slipped outside and around Northug to take the lead. This was very similar to the move Sundby made during this stage last year. The only difference was that Sundby attacked about 200 meters into the final climb, and on Sunday, he attacked on the flatter downhill section.
Sundby’s plan now was to ever so slightly ramp up the pace and see if Northug could hang on. Between the two, Sundby was more of a lightweight, giving him that advantage as they prepared to climb.
As the situation for first and second started to play out, the battle for third and fourth was just as intense. At the same 6.2 k mark, Halfvarsson and Belov were side by side, neither one getting ahead of the other. If an attack was made here, would they be able to bridge up to the Sundby/Northug battle just 46.9 seconds ahead of them? If they could work together and not fight each other, there could be an opportunity to catch the Sundby and Northug up front.
The attack at the 6.2 mark was ultimately the winning move for Sundby and it was apparent as soon as he passed Northug. Sundby opened up a seven-to-eight-meter gap and did so using the V2 technique. Behind him was a struggling Northug trying to keep pace using a labored V1 climb technique. He was slowing down, and Sundby was skating away.
At the 7.1 k timing section, Sundby’s lead was growing quickly. He came through in 15:38, and Northug was 13.2 seconds behind — a time that Halfvarsson and Belov would soon be getting from their respective coaches. Halfvarsson led them through, 42.6 seconds back, as Belov trailed by 0.8 seconds. The pair was within 30 seconds of Northug, but more importantly, they were chipping away at Sundby as well.
At 8.1 k, the 29-percent-grade section and hardest part of the climb, Sundby looked back several times, realizing that Northug wasn’t going to be able to catch him. He came through 33.4 seconds ahead of Northug and 50 seconds ahead of Halfvarsson and Belov, who were now within 17 seconds of second place. But making up that ground to Northug in 900 meters wouldn’t be easy.
At the final time check before the finish at 8.5 k, Sundby all but wrapped up his second-consecutive Tour de Ski title with a 35.2-second margin to Northug.
Skiing behind Halfvarsson most of the race, Belov finally passed the Swede to move into third and came through the checkpoint ten seconds behind Northug. Halfvarsson in fourth slipped to 12 seconds behind Belov.
All that was left for Sundby to do was finish and secure another coveted Tour title in his second time racing the multi-stage series. Exhausted, Sundby crossed the line, uncontested, in 29:27.4. Sundby now joins Switzerland’s Dario Cologna as the only male skier to win consecutive Tour titles.
“This is much, much bigger for me to win this year than last year,” Sundby told NRK after Sunday’s race, according to a translation. “Last year was not quite as strong competition. This year I had the pressure on me.”
With first place taken, the race came down to a battle for second. With time splits on Belov behind him, Northug upped the pace ever so slightly. This move gave him all the advantage he needed, finishing second, 34.5 seconds after Sundby and 16.6 seconds ahead of Belov in third. Halfvarsson held onto fourth place, 1:04.2 behind the winner and more than a minute ahead of Cologna in fifth (+2:06.6).
Northug has finished second in this stage four times and made the overall Tour podium six times.
“I am very happy to be second in the Tour,” Northug told FIS after the race. “Me and Martin were very working well together before the start of the climb. Martin sped up on the hill. I could not follow him but I found a good rhythm and I am happy to be second.”
Commenting on his strategy, Northug told NRK, “I tried to go fast into climb along with Martin. My plan was to find my own rhythm. I tried to go on a lighter gear, so I had a faster gear to go on, because I figured that Calle and Belov were coming fast from behind.”
Commenting on his own race strategy, Sundby told FIS, “Today feels just amazing. I did not have the best start today. I did not feel good at the beginning. Petter was pushing hard after the start and I did not know if I could follow him. I am so happy and relieved to win. Mentally it was the biggest challenge ever.”
In an interview with Eurosport, Sundby said that he was “extremely tired after yesterday’s race and was thankful to recover afterwards. The last hill was never racking but I’m so happy to come in first, too.”
An elated Belov told FIS, “It is my biggest achievement of my career. It feels great to be third in the Tour de Ski. At the beginning of the climb Calle tried to attack but I could follow him. Later on I saw it was harder and harder for him to keep the pace and I decided to attack. When I saw that gap got bigger on Calle I started to believe I could finish in third place.”
The fastest man of the day was Italy’s Roland Clara, who completed the climb in 29:13.0, just 2.1 seconds ahead of France’s Maurice Manificat in second.
As a result of his stage win and overall Tour de Ski title, Sundby claimed first position in the race for the season-long overall World Cup title. His 1189 total points is 340 points ahead of second place Northug. Siting in third place is Halfvarsson with 809 points.